India airlifts oxygen from abroad as Covid ‘shakes nation’

EU, US and UK offer to help with crippling shortage of supplies paralysing hospitals

Bodies piling up at crematoriums and burial grounds across India are sparking concerns that the death toll from a ferocious new Covid-19 wave may be much higher than official records. Video: Reuters


India is airlifting in emergency medical supplies as countries around the world offer to help it battle a catastrophic second wave of Covid-19 infections that prime minister Narendra Modi on Sunday said “had shaken the nation”.

New Delhi reported a world record 349,000 new infections on Saturday, along with more than 2,700 deaths as the country’s second wave breaks global milestones.

A total of 190,000 people are reported to have died from Covid-19 in India, though experts believe the true number of cases and deaths is being widely undercounted as sick patients struggle to get tested and fatalities are misreported.

Chronic shortages of beds and oxygen have left hospitals in hotspots such as Delhi pleading publicly for relief, while patients die for want of treatment even while they queue outside hospitals waiting to be seen. More than 20 patients died at one private hospital in Delhi, Jaipur Golden, after oxygen supplies ran low.

After facing criticism for inaction, allies such as the UK, US and European Union said on Sunday that they would help India address crippling shortages of oxygen and other emergency supplies.

The UK said that starting on Sunday it would send hundreds of oxygen concentrators and ventilators after a request from India. “We will be following up on this first delivery with further support, based on our ongoing discussions with the Indian government,” foreign secretary Dominic Raab said.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Twitter that Washington would “rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India”.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who faced a backlash for criticising India’s decision to scale back pharmaceutical and vaccine exports during the recent crisis, also promised assistance. “Germany stands in solidarity with India and is urgently preparing a mission of support,” she said in a message tweeted by the government’s spokesman.

The EU is “alarmed by the epidemiological situation in India” and is “pooling resources” in support, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, wrote on Twitter.

Janez Lenarcic, the EU’s crisis management commissioner, said the bloc was “co-ordinating” supplies of oxygen and medicine after activating its civil protection mechanism at India’s request.

The Indian Air Force on Saturday flew in four empty oxygen containers from Singapore.

Modi address

Mr Modi and his government have been criticised for failing to prepare health systems for the latest wave. In a radio address on Sunday, Mr Modi said the central government was fully engaged in addressing the crisis. “After successfully combating the first wave, the country was filled with confidence, but this storm has shaken the nation,” he said.

Public health experts are alarmed by the suspected role of the B. 1.617 variant, which was discovered in India last month, in driving the surge. Health officials in the UK, where the strain has also been detected, are studying whether it is more infectious and vaccine evasive. The UK last week put India on its travel “red list” in response to the rise in cases. Ireland is expected to add India to its quarantine list shortly.

Rudra Chaudhuri, director of the Carnegie India think tank, said the airlifts had little parallel in modern Indian history. “In an emergency situation like this, even the spectre of . . . aircraft landing in Indian bases with oxygen tankers is pretty unprecedented,” he said. “The fact is that there has been a public administration crisis in this country with regards to planning.”

Election rallies

Analysts have blamed complacency for the shortages of beds and health supplies – in a country that enjoys the moniker of “pharmacy of the world” for its medical manufacturing prowess – as officials failed to anticipate such a severe burden on the health system. The government is also accused of exacerbating the crisis by holding mass election rallies and allowing a giant religious festival to go ahead long after it was clear the virus was out of control.

Ramachandra Guha, a prominent historian of modern India, wrote that the current wave might be “the gravest crisis the nation has faced since Partition”, referring to the subcontinent’s bloody separation into India and Pakistan in 1947.

Indian vaccine manufacturers and analysts have also blamed the US’s use of wartime powers to restrict exports of certain raw materials used in vaccine production for exacerbating the slow pace of the country’s inoculation drive.

In Delhi, which has gone back into lockdown to try to arrest the surge, hospitals have repeatedly been left with as little as an hour of oxygen and forced to put out public “SOS” calls for top-ups.

In cities around the country, officials have reimposed restrictions, hospitals have been unable to keep up with the arrival of sick patients and cremation and burial grounds have been overwhelmed by dead bodies. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021